The people are the heroes now
Behemoth pulls the peasants’ plough
Thus begins the first act of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China, with a chorus declaiming the victory of socialism: the people rule, and Behemoth – a mythical monster associated by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan with the overweening power of the state – subservient and domesticated to the will of the people. It is the people who now lead.
It is all tosh, of course, with Adams and his lyricist Alice Goodman poking fun at the pretensions of the Maoist state; in reality, in Mao’s China, Behemoth was very much in control and the peasants did what they were told. The illusion of freedom and the reality of dictatorial rule were very much opposed.
But it is forty years since Mao died and the totalitarian edifice he created began to be dismantled, and the world has changed. After the political upheavals of 2016 we are entitled to ask: is it true? Have the people really taken charge of their own destiny, voting for the leadership they want rather than the leadership they are told they should want? And if so, what are the consequences for leadership? Do our old assumptions about what leadership is still stand up in this brave new world?
One of the arguments we made in Leadership Paradoxes: Rethinking Leadership for an Uncertain World, is that leadership is no longer what we think it is (and maybe never was). Over and over again, contributors to the volume make the point that not only is leadership defined by the relationship between leaders and followers, but it is also the followers themselves who exercise restraint and discipline over leaders and, in the end, determine what leaders do and how they do it.
Powerful new technologies, including social media, allow followers to talk to each other, instantly, across wide geographical spaces. Ideas which might have taken days to circulate now spin around the globe in minutes, even seconds. The shrinking world means we can reach out to like-minded individuals across the globe, and even though we might never see these people or get to know them as individuals, we can mesh our opinions and views of the world with theirs. And when that happens, it is we the people who drive change, not our leaders. It is we who harness Behemoth to the plough; though the results of our tillage can sometimes be bitter indeed.
Did Donald Trump really lead the Republican Party to victory in the American election in November 2016? Of course he didn’t. Trump had no programme, no ideology; his public pronouncements veered from one implausible extreme to another. What Trump did – and like him or loathe him, one has to admit he did it quite brilliantly – is to personify the ideas of a large slice of the American population. He became a symbol around which their aspirations coalesced. This particular body of Americans rejected the leaders who had been thrust upon them over the past few decades, and went looking for one who fitted the bill. They found Trump: someone whose identity could be moulded and shaped by his followers to until he represented an image of the kind of leader they wanted to follow.
As a historian, I have never believed that in the past, people passively accepted whatever their leaders told them to do; the history of civilisation is too full of rebellion and revolution for this to be a viable theory. But there is nonetheless a sea change underway. In the past, we tended to replace one leader with another rather similar one, for the simple reason that most of the leaders available to us came from a very similar political and social class. Now, we were trying to cast leaders in our own image. I will follow your leadership only so long as you lead me where I want to be led, is the new watchword. Trump needs to beware. The moment he stops representing the aspirations of his followers is the moment they will throw him overboard, and go looking elsewhere.
Of course the will of the people is not paramount. The people spoke in the Arab Spring, and in Libya and Egypt and the Yemen and Syria their voices were silenced by tanks and guns; only in Tunisia does the popular movement cling precariously to power. But that only serves to increase the sense that leadership is becoming increasingly a matter of us versus them. Leaders are having to work increasingly hard to impose their will on the people, and the people are increasingly prone to resistance. Many Americans who did not vote for Trump are also dissatisfied and looking for something different. And Trump and others like him are showing that there is another way: instead of trying to shape the will of the people, you can instead embody it, and go with the flow. Forget about having a programme, just express what the people are thinking. The people are the heroes now.
Is that dangerous? Yes, of course it is. One of the first rules of demagogery is to fasten onto whatever popular current is moving at the time and go with it, gathering followers who see you as their champion. Let us never forget that Adolf Hitler came to power through the democratic process. But somewhere between the old-fashioned paternalistic leader who looks after the people and makes decisions for them, and the populist demagogues who surf the waves of popular sentiment and ride them to power, there has to be a middle way: a way that reflects the public mood without kowtowing to its more vicious caprices. Finding that middle way – finding a more humanistic, more humane, more compassionate kind of leadership – is the great leadership task of the 21st Century. And we had better start looking soon, before the lunatics take over the asylum.
Fellow, Centre for Leadership Studies
University of Exeter Business School
Twitter: @morgenwitzel, @lshipparadoxes